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Britain's brutal rule in Kenya on the docks
Decades-old struggle for justice over crackdown on Kenyan rebellion goes to court, opening retribution's door.
Last Modified: 06 Oct 2012 10:28

Nairobi, Kenya - The British colonial officers ordered the Kenyans off the crowded bus, hunting for insurgents who had brazenly challenged the empire's rule.

It was just before Christmas in 1957. Mbithuka Kimweli was travelling with his wife Naomi and their three young children. The officers demanded to know his involvement with the "Mau Mau" anti-colonial movement.

They separated Naomi from the children, blindfolded and beat her, then raped her with a glass bottle. Nearby, they castrated her husband with a pair of pliers.

"I denied any knowledge of the Mau Mau, yet they destroyed me," Mbithuka Kimweli says.

The abuses were part of a systematic campaign of torture conducted by the British to suppress the Mau Mau uprising in the 1950s and early '60s. The anti-British group had launched a guerrilla war against British settlers and Kenyan loyalists from the forests of central Kenya.

The panicked colonial administration detained more than one million people, most of whom, like the Kimwelis, had nothing to do with Mau Mau. Some remained incarcerated for as long as 10 years.

According to the Kenya Human Rights Commission, about 90,000 people were executed, tortured, or maimed during the rebellion.

" These are the marks left by the clamps they used to torture us...When I said I hadn't taken an oath (to the Mau Mau rebels), they would squeeze the clamps tighter together."

- Mbithuka Kimweli

Naomi Kimweli did not think, as she lay for weeks in King George hospital in Nairobi, that the men who tortured her and her husband would ever be held accountable.

But 55 years later, justice will now be served. Justice Richard McCombe ruled Friday in London that the British government's Foreign and Common Wealth Office must answer for crimes committed more than half a century ago in Kenya.

In Nairobi, elderly Kenyans - many the victims of torture under British rule - waited anxiously at the Kenya Human Rights Commission for the verdict. George Morara, the commission's officer in charge of the case, received the call from London.

"Temeshinda kesi yetu!" Morara excitedly told the crowd in Kiswahili, a Swahili language. "We have won our case."

The elderly Mau Mau jumped and danced in age-defying ways.

Also closely following McCombe's decision were Indians, Malaysians, Cypriots, and Guyanese - others who lived and suffered under British rule. Cases have been filed across the former British empire's vast expanse seeking reparations for colonial-era abuses.

Colonial crimes

Sitting in the dusty courtyard outside his home in rural Kenya, Mbithuka Kimweli lifted up one leg of his trousers. Underneath, his skin is badly scarred.

"These are the marks left by the clamps they used to torture us," he says. "When I said I hadn't taken an oath (to the Mau Mau rebels), they would squeeze the clamps tighter together."
 
As the British empire retreated from its African colonial possession in 1963, the administrators incinerated most of the incriminating records. The new Kenyan government, meanwhile, sidelined the Mau Mau, overlooking their role in the independence struggle and painting the group as "terrorists".

Naomi Kimweli sits at a table on the south bank of the River Thames leafing through an Olympics pamphlet. It is just after 5pm and Londoners are gathering for a glass of Pimms and some rare sunshine.

 

Kenyans seek UK compensation for colonial abuses

Naomi and three other elderly Kenyan torture victims spent two weeks at the Royal Courts of Justice in July 2012. For six hours a day they watched men and women in powdered wigs read aloud evidence of their rapes and castrations in a language they could not understand.

In 2003, Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki lifted the 40-year-old ban on the Mau Mau, ending their political marginalisation. About the same time, historians researching the Mau Mau uprising gained access to secret colonial archives detailing the extent to which the colonial authorities systematically used torture to suppress the rebel movement.

The old horror stories of the Kimwelis and thousands of other Kenyans found new legal footing. Thus began the legal battle that would challenge the impunity of empire.

"We are not talking about phantoms," said Morara of the Kenyan Human Rights Commission. "We are talking about real men and women who exist and still bear scars."

Morara interviewed hundreds of torture survivors before selecting five claimants to sue the Foreign Office, seeking both a formal apology and reparations. Since the filing of the lawsuit in 2009, one claimant has passed away and another has fallen ill.

The first hearing in July of 2011 ended in Mau Mau's favour.

"The claimants have arguable cases in law and on the facts as presently known, that there was such systematic torture and the UK government is so liable," declared McCombe.   

During the second hearing last July, the Foreign Office faced growing piles of evidence - oral testimony, medical records, and diplomatic wires from London. In their opening statements, lawyers representing the British government admitted torture had occurred.

However, the Foreign Office fought to ensure that moral responsibility did not become financial. Its lawyers claimed too much time had passed and that most of the defendants are now dead. They also argued that the Kenyan government, as a sovereign successor to the colonial one, should face the lawsuit.

"We consider these as acts of torture, and crimes against humanity are not time bound," Morara said, countering the Foreign Office's argument.  

Precedent setting

Before the claimants returned home to Kenya at the end of July, their lawyers at Leigh Day and Co hosted a barbeque in a backyard garden in north London.  

" It is about historical record...The Mau Mau, termed to be terrorists, they have won."

- Gitu wa Kahengeri, Mau Mau War Veterans spokesman

"Three years ago we began this case, thinking it would be a week's worth of work and be dismissed within 30 minutes," said Dan Leader, a lawyer representing the Kenyans.

Many believed the latest battle would be fought in vain.  

"During the Mau Mau struggle for independence, people asked how can you beat the British government," says Gitu wa Kahengeri, spokesman for the Mau Mau War Veterans Association. "We are freedom fighters, we never lose hope."
 
Following Friday's ruling, the Foreign Office will likely settle out of court to avoid a long and expensive trial.

"It is about historical record," Kahengeri said, noting that the victory is not strictly financial. "The Mau Mau, termed to be terrorists, they have won."

"Will this ruling open the floodgates?" a journalist asked Morara, referring to other former British colonies whose archives are now being mined.  

"Well if it does, that is the cost of violating human rights," shrugged Morara, rejoining the celebrations.

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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